Volume 1 1892 > Volume 1, No. 3, 1892 > What is a Tangata Maori? by A. S. Atkinson, p133-136
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I ASK this question, intending to lay stress on the last word of it, and with the hope of evoking a discussion on the meaning of the word Maori. In what sense did the natives of New Zealand use the word before the advent of Europeans ?

At the present time, the word Maori is used generally by both races in these islands, either 1st, as a noun to denote an aboriginal native of New Zealand in distinction to an Englishman or other recent immigrant; or 2nd, as an adjective, for everything relating to the former, as distinguished from all relating to the latter.

This use of the word is supported by its practical utility; is there any authority beyond one passage of very doubtful antiquity in White's Ancient History of the Maori, (III. 116.) tending to show that in this sense it is not quite modern.

I propose in this paper to put together a few native sentences which I have so far collected, and in which the word Maori, has preserved—I would suggest—an earlier and more general meaning than that now prevalent, yet one from which the latter might easily arise.

It may be convenient if I preface my quotations by saying that the most general meaning which they seem to show as attributable to the word Maori, is, “common”, “ordinary”; and it is used as these two words are at different times in English, that is sometimes with an implication of disparagement, sometimes of praise; while sometimes again it is used simply, without implication of either kind.

The first quotation refers to Maui's invention of the barbed point to the bird-spear: “Na Maui te here i mahia ki te [kia?] taratara te koinga; a ko Irawaru i kore ai e mahi i tana kia taratara, he mea waiho Maori noa iho te pito o tana tahere, na reira i kore ai e mau he manu ma Irawaru”, &c. White, A. H. (II. 111.)“Maui's was the bird-spear - 134 whose point was barbed; but Irawaru did not barb his, its point was left in common style, (unimproved; Mr. White says, “had none on his”); hence it did not secure the birds for Irawaru.”

The same meaning of common, unimproved, appears in the next also, which is only a compound name Te Ruahine-mata-Maori. White, A. H., II. 50 and 54, where according to Mr. White the same meaning appears, “common, unimproved;” he translates the name in one place (trans. 55) as “name of the common face; ” and in another (ib. 59) as “old woman of the untattooed face.”

In a passage in Sir George Grey's “Moteatea,” p. 25, the small inconspicuous stars are called whetu maori, (lit. maori stars) as being, I presume, common, ordinary, when compared with the great ones, such as Rehua, (which there no doubt, designates one of the brighter planets, probably Jupiter).

In describing the practice of a war-party, it is said, (White, A. H. I. 35) “Ka kainga e te tohunga te manawa o te mataika, katahi ka kai katoa te iwi i te kai maori.” “the heart of the first slain of the enemy is eaten by the priest:” [Mr. White continues] “and not until he had eaten it could the army partake of ordinary food”—the last two words translating the words kai Maori.

In the Maori Messenger for July 16, 1863, p. 17, there is a letter from a native referring to the land dispute heard at Auckland, between Te Tirarau and Ngapuhi, and saying that the Government had provided (two) vessels to take the disputants home. He goes on:— “Ko tetahi he tima; i a Te Tirarau ma te tima. Ko te kaipuke maori i Ngapuhi, ko te ingoa o taua kaipuke ko Wikitoria.” “One (of these vessels) was a steamer, Te Tirarau and his people had that; Ngapuhi had the sailing-ship (lit. Maori ship, common ship), the name of which was Victoria.” Here the class “ship,” kaipuke, is divided into two; the extraordinary one, the steamer, is given its specific name, the common sailing vessel is called a maori ship, though so far as one can judge from the narrative, it was maori only in being of the then much commoner kind.

A story is told in the Ancient History, vol. IV. p. 183, how Taraao, being besieged, escaped by means of a tunnel which he made from his pa, under his enemies to a safe distance beyond them. His people hear his conch-shell trumpet sound, the agreed signal that he had got away, and the story continues:—“Kua puta a ia ki waho i te pito o te rua, kua ora a ia, kua haere maori noa iho i te koraha;” “He had got safely out at the end of his tunnel, and was travelling in ordinary fashion across the open country.” It will be noticed that in this sentence, the word maori is used adverbially with haere; Taraao's journey, so far as it was accomplished by means of his tunnel, was naturally looked on as out of the common; when he had got through this, he resumed the ordinary practice of travellers.

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The expression, te ao maori, appears usually to mean this common, familiar world, where men live, as distinguished from the dwelling-place of the gods. See White, A. H. I. 34, 35, &c. In the same work, Vol. V. p. 106, a passage occurs referring to Captain Cook and his men; there was no doubt they were tupua, beings like men but not genuinely human; from another world, yet not such tupua as are the maori gods, “inahoki e kai ana, i nga kai o te ao maori nei,” “inasmuch as they eat the food of this ordinary (or real, or human) world.” The maori gods were accustomed to eat only the shadow of their food, while the British sailors eat the substance also.

Here the first maori (in atua, maori) is probably as now, almost always antithetical to pakeha, or foreign, while the second (in ao maori) is used I submit, to distinguish this real or familiar world of substance from the imaginary, or at least unfamiliar, world of shadows.

The same contrast is, I think, well brought out in a passage in Sir George Grey's Polynesian Mythology (part II. 174.) Kahukura has come upon the place where the Patupaiarehe or “fairies” have been cleaning their fish. His first thought is that these traces have been left by ordinary (or real) men (“hua noa na te tangata maori”); but at last he comes to a contrary conclusion in these words:—“E hara i te mahi tangata maori, na te atua tenei mahinga; mehemea na te tangata, e kitea te whariki o te waka.” Sir G. Grey translates:—“These are no mortals who have been fishing here—spirits must have done this; had they been men, some of the reeds and grass which they sat on in their canoe would have been lying about.” Referring to the original it will be seen that the writer uses tangata maori as an emphatic form of tangata, and both as meaning man, human being, as distinguished from spirit, or god, &c., from other beings, that is, having the form, and sometimes receiving the general name of man, (tangata) but not being man in the common and true sense.

Dr. Codrington (Mel. Lang. p. 82 and 467) makes a noteworthy observation:—“When white men first appear to Melanesians they are taken for ghosts, dead men come back; when white men ask the natives what they are, they proclaim themselves to be men, not ghosts.” This was in its main outlines, certainly true of several parts of Polynesia, and probably of Oceania generally—the notion I mean, on the first appearance of the white man that he was not an ordinary or real human being as they were themselves; the latter proposition as to what they themselves were, being appropriately expressed—I would suggest—by the natives of New Zealand, and perhaps by all the other Polynesians with the help of the word maori, used mainly as an intensive to emphasize the fact of their humanity.

It is noticeable also that in a part of Melanesia a word possibly related, is used for the same purpose—Ta being man, (=Polynesian tangata) and ta mate, dead man, ghost, or white man, the native him- - 136 self, according to Dr. Codrington, is a “ta mole, a bare man,” [a mere man] “nothing else, not a ghost or spirit.” (Mel. Lang. 467.) In the word maori the first syallable ma is presumably the common and very widely spread “prefix of quality.” Whether this or its equivalent mo appears, wholly or partially, in moli I cannot pretend to say, as for one thing I do not even know whether the o of moli is long (=oo) or not, but in any case, if as is probably inevitable, we have to take ŏri as the radical part of maori, it may also be found that ŏli is as truly the radical in the Sesake moli, as it is in the Hawaiian maoli: compare also, (besides others) the Tongan mooni real, true. But though much light may be looked for from this side of the question if properly treated, to discuss it reasonably is only possible after, or as a part of, a general discussion of the nature and relation inter se of the Polynesian, not to say Oceanic radicals.

From what I have said it will be understood that the answer I should propose to my own question, is, that a tangata maori meant emphatically a human being; not a human being of the Polynesian race as distinguished from some other human being of another race; but a common or real human being as distinguished from a being, human indeed in form, but not in fact. It seems easy to suppose that from this use the word might become a race-name so soon as another race came permanently on the scene, and its common humanity—denied at first—came afterwards to be recognised. On the other hand the converse process does not seem at all easy to suppose, namely, that a race-name should come to be applied, by the bearers of it, to such uses as I have mentioned. If maori properly meant an aboriginal native of New Zealand, or of Polynesia, how came fresh water to be called wai maori or maori water; or the smaller stars, maori stars; or an untattooed face a maori face, and so on?

In conclusion may I ask any of your readers interested in the question to offer any criticism they may think appropriate on what is here said; and also especially, to put on record any other instances they may know of the use of the word maori in New Zealand, or of any word they may think akin to it—any word like it in form or function—in any cognate dialect out of New Zealand, in all cases giving translations and any necessary explanations.